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Riley's Ramblings - The Second Vatican Council: Part III
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October 15, 2012

The Catholic Church at the Time of the Council

I am writing this blog just two days before the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council on October 12. In this blog I want to focus on the state of the Catholic Church at the time of the council.

During the 19th and 20th centuries the Catholic Church lost a great deal of power and ability to influence and control nations and peoples. The French Revolution decimated the Church as laws after laws were enacted to wrest property, power and influence from the Church in France. Many bishops, priests, religious and Catholic lay men and women lost their lives as a result of their opposition to these policies. France was no longer a “Catholic country.” In 1870 the armies of Emmanuel II invaded Italy, liberated the Papal States and united Italy. The pope became a self-proclaimed prisoner of the Vatican. The same loss of power occurred in Germany in the Kulturkampf under Otto von Bismark from 1873-1878. The laws he promulgated sought to remove Catholic influence from all aspects of German life including the closing of Catholic schools, the naming of bishops and the dissolving of religious orders of men and women. Catholics were also persecuted throughout Asia and the rise and spread of communism almost completely eliminated Catholicism throughout Eastern Europe.

The popes responded to this loss of political power by issuing decree after decree and encyclical after encyclical demanding that Catholics adhere strictly to Church teaching. In a very defensive spirit, Pope Pius IX convened the First Vatican Council in Rome in 1870 to publicly reinforce the prestige and power of the papacy and that Council issued the famous proclamation on papal infallibility. He and the popes who followed him issued various decrees, one a decree against modernism (which included any number of beliefs or “tendencies”) and the Syllabus of Errors which listed 80 beliefs that the pope believed were heretical, one being that “the Church should be separated from the state and the state from the Church” (#55). These decrees and rulings put a stranglehold on any advancement in theology. There was to be established an office in every diocese to “sniff out” modernist tendencies and report them to Rome. The ecclesiastical career of any cleric reported for modernism came to a complete halt.  Up to the time of the council, any priest who taught in a seminary or theology in a university or who assumed any office in the Church, was required to publicly pronounce the Oath Against Modernism. In post-World War II Europe some Catholic theologians began to use an historical criticism methodology in Biblical, liturgical, moral and systematic theology.  Termed the “nouvelle theologie” by the Vatican, these theologians were silenced, removed from their teaching posts, forbidden to preach or publish and many of their works were placed on the Index of Prohibited Books. It was clear that any priests espousing innovations or theological developments would be investigated by the Holy Office and suffer the consequences.

The Catholic scholarly community in the United States learned early in the twentieth century that scholarship could place one under suspicion and the best thing to do was to adhere strictly to what the Church taught. Most men who rose to positions of authority as bishops, chancellors, seminary rectors and professors were educated in Roman universities (sent there as young priests or seminarians by their bishops because they “showed promise). There they learned what the Church taught through the study of scholastic theology taught in those universities. They returned from the U.S. and conveyed to the Catholic laity that their responsibility was to “pray, pay and obey.” Catholic schools from grade schools through college, Sunday sermons, Catholic newspapers and magazines reinforced that message.

Catholic life in the United States, at the time of the council, centered around the local parish, whether it was a nationality or territorial parish. There was the parish school with a myriad of activities such as sports teams, mission clubs, sodalities, plays, Christmas pageants, May crownings and celebrations of the pastor’s feast day. Adults could belong to the Holy Name Society, the Knights of Columbus, a parish sodality, or the Altar and Rosary Society. Sunday and daily Mass and Saturday confessions were augmented by various parish novenas, recitation of the rosary, annual parish missions. During the year the parish went all out for the Forty Hours Devotions, Holy Week, Easter and Christmas when Solemn High Masses were celebrated in sanctuaries ablaze with candles and flooded with flowers in an atmosphere sweetened by the smoke of incense. The life of the family and the parish sacramentally resonated with baptism, First Holy Communions, Confirmations, weddings and funerals.

If the Church in Europe was suffering from a malaise in the middle of the twentieth century, the Church in the United States was in its “golden era.” Seminaries and convents were filled with vocations. Many, if not most, of the 78 million babies born between 1946 and 1964 (the baby boomers) were born to Catholic parents. As a result, Catholic schools had reached enrollment numbers that required the continual opening of more parishes with schools. In the diocese of Cleveland, Ohio, Bishop Edward Hoban opened 64 new parishes with schools between 1947 and 1964. In that same time period the number of students in Catholic elementary schools in Cleveland grew from 44,445 to 112,238. The need for women religious to staff these schools put a tremendous strain on religious communities, but it was from these dedicated women that most Catholics learned the rudiments of their faith as well as their three r’s. In many ways they were the “public face” of Catholicism in this country.

While there was much growth in the Church in this country, there were a few concerns that ran under the surface that caused Catholics to be a little schizophrenic. Sometimes American ideals clashed with official Catholic teaching. For instance, as noted earlier, the Syllabus or Errors and other papal decrees condemned the separation of church and state, a reality that most American Catholics prized. Catholic theology also forbad “communication in sacris”, Catholics attending religious services in non-Catholic churches. Many Catholics felt that this law ran contrary to the American acceptance of pluralism. They could not understand what harm was done by attending the weddings or funerals of their non-Catholic neighbors and co-workers. They could live with not eating meat on Fridays, but many had concerns about being “discourteous” to their friends by not attending significant events in their lives. But for the most part Catholics went along with the law or, when they failed to do so, they went to confession.

Another issue that raised concerns among many Catholics at the time of the Council was the prohibition of any form of artificial birth control. They knew it was wrong, but some couples broke the law out of what they perceived as a necessity in terms of limiting the size of their families. Many of them then labored under the burden of guilt for “committing a mortal sin. “Following  one’s conscience” was not yet something that Catholics were comfortable with.

For the most part Catholics in the United States lived happy lives in their parishes, “going to” the sacraments and doing what “Father said” and thereby felt relatively assured of their salvation. Their children and grandchildren would experience a very different kind of Catholicism as the result of the Council which took place in Rome between 1962 and 1965.